Making Food-Safe Packaging From Recycled Materials

Can We Make Food-Safe Packaging From Recycled Materials?

In September 2022, the European Union announced strict new recycling laws for food packaging that contains recycled materials. These laws make sure recycled materials go through careful cleaning processes before companies can use them to make takeaway containers and other packaging for food. In light of our new EPR regulations, Europe’s new laws could serve as a helpful guideline for the South African packaging industry. 

In South Africa, businesses can recycle dirty food containers to make products like skirting boards, picture frames, and building materials. However, if we follow the EU’s guidelines, we could soon be able to turn these old food containers into brand new ones that are perfectly clean and food-safe.

We already do this for plastic cooldrink and water bottles at Extrupet’s bottle-to-bottle facility in Johannesburg. Following the EU guidelines could help us do the same for polystyrene and paper food containers and cups.


What is Bottle-to-Bottle Recycling?

Bottle-to-bottle (also called closed-loop) is a type of recycling where companies turn used plastic cooldrink or water bottles into brand new ones. It generally refers to PET plastic, but we could apply the same method to other materials with the right technology.

Taking this approach to recycling means you don’t turn waste materials into different products but into the same type of products they once were. For example, instead of turning plastic water bottles into shopping bags, we turn them into brand new water bottles. The aim is to use the same pieces of plastic countless times, so we never have to remove more crude oil or natural gas from the earth.

Just like bottle-to-bottle processing, challenges exist for any new food-safe application, for example, take away containers. They must be perfectly clean to make an extremely high-quality material safe enough to touch the food we eat. The EU’s new regulations can help us identify what technology we need to meet these high cleanliness standards in South Africa.


South African Recycled Packaging Laws

Although many South African companies have recycled  packaging materials voluntarily for years, it has been written into the law since 2021. SA’s new Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) Regulations require all producers, importers, and distributors of packaging materials to run collection and recycling schemes for their used products. 

Our  EPR laws also contain “recyclate content” targets for single-use packaging. That means within a certain time, manufacturers, shops, and restaurants must include recycled materials in their packaging. According to the law, manufacturers must include at least 8% recycled materials in single-use plastics within one year of starting their recycling schemes.

By the end of year five, packaging manufacturers must make single-use plastic packaging from at least 20% recycled materials.

These targets are simple enough to meet for shopping bags and shampoo bottles but can be tricky when it comes to food packaging. It needs to be food-safe, which we can’t always guarantee when using recycled materials that haven’t been cleaned sufficiently. 


Food Safety Standards for Recycled Polystyrene

Food-safe packaging is important because it ensures no contaminants get into the food application products. There is currently no regulation for using recycled plastics in food containers in South Africa. That means no guarantee of food safety for recycled materials used in the manufacturing of containers, cups, and trays. However, we can borrow guidelines from the new EU recycling regulation.  

This regulation allows for new technologies to emerge that can clean used polystyrene thoroughly enough to make it food safe. This is good news for the South African recycling industry, as the technology exists. Implementing new technology can help us recycle even more polystyrene than we already do. 


Making Recycled Polystyrene Food Containers a Reality

Currently, PET is the only plastic type that is widely recycled in a bottle-to-bottle system. That’s because industry has invested large funding into the technology and building a plant suitable for this process. The same technology exists for polystyrene, but the plant with the correct processes needs to be invested in.

However, we could soon see safe and sustainable recycled polystyrene food containers on the market. Here’s what we need to make that happen:


  • Green design 

There are seven types of plastics, all of which have different recycling requirements. That means packaging made from lots of different plastic types is more difficult to recycle. The first step towards making recycling a reality is making it easier. The best polystyrene food containers should contain no other materials that could contaminate the recycling stream.


  • Better sorting and cleaning

There’s no room for error when it comes to food-safe packaging materials – any unwanted bits and pieces could ruin a batch of recycling. For a closed-loop polystyrene recycling system to work, we’d need to set supreme standards for cleanliness with regular quality checks. We could achieve this with optical sorting/NIR technology, which is already widely available worldwide. 


  • Multiple recycling technologies  

Investing in recycling technology for polystyrene is crucial for increasing how much we recycle. Having many technologies at play means more options for restaurants and grocery shops, creating a well-rounded market that can meet the demand for food-safe recycled materials. Some technologies we could use to recycle polystyrene for food packaging include depolymerisation, dissolution, and mechanical recycling. 


  • PROs and retailers working together

To create a truly closed-loop, bottle-to-bottle system for polystyrene food containers, businesses and governments must work together. When restaurant owners collect used polystyrene separately from other waste and send it for recycling, it keeps it clean right from the source. Producer responsibility organisations (PROs) can help businesses pool their money and skills to run better recycling projects. 


Food-Safe Recycled Polystyrene is the Future

While we may not have national regulations for food-safe recycled packaging yet, we can use the EU’s new guidelines as a start. eWASA helps businesses stay on top of their EPR goals with detailed recycling schemes that meet legal requirements. 

Our members sign a food safety declaration and undergo internal and external audits to make sure their recycled packaging adheres to strict health and safety standards. Talk to us about obtaining a food safety compliance certification for your business.





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